According to Firefly lore, “The Message” was the last episode shot but not the last episode aired during the sci-fi western’s original run on Fox in 2002. In fact, “The Message” never aired at all. Sad. This was one of the great ones, full of metaphorical resonance about Firefly itself. The story had the smugglers of Serenity transporting a corpse to its final resting place. During the execution of the task, the dead man sprung back to life. There was joy, and then there was betrayal, and Mal and company wound up playing pallbearers, anyway, right after fulfilling the unexpected role of executioners. If the cast and crew shot the episode knowing the series had been canceled, then at least they had a story they could pour themselves into and get some small bit of catharsis in return.
Mal and Zoe knew the deceased well. Private Tracey was a fellow Browncoat; they had fought with him during the war. The young man was a terrible solider, and Mal and Zoe had to work hard to keep him from getting killed, and to keep themselves from getting killed by his sloppiness. How did Tracey's body come into their possession? Through the mail, of course. During a stop at a space station that was part open-market bazaar and part street fair (complete with sideshows like a canry huckster promising a peek at alleged alien life) (actually a upside down mutant cow fetus), Serenity’s crew picked up a load of post that included a care package for Jayne (Mom had knitted him a fuzzy, flappy cap -- hilarious) and a crate containing Tracey. In a recorded message, the boyish-looking vet explained that he had fallen in “with untrustworthy folk” and made “a bunch of bad calls” since the end of the war. He wanted Mal and Zoe to lay him to rest on his home world. They accepted the charge, and their shipmates gave their support easily.
Dead Tracey's presence inspired a variety of poignant responses. In one scene alone, “The Message” found a way to generalize and summarize the various ways in which people deal with sobering confrontations with morality. Book read aloud from his Bible and prayed. Jayne pumped iron and babbled. River, unflinching, laid atop the casket, as if trying to commune with the lifeless shell within. “I’m very comfortable,” she declared.
JAYNE: I see a stiff – one I didn’t have to kill myself –I just get, you know, the urge to do stuff. Work out, run around, get some trim of there’s a willin’ woman about. Not that I get flush from corpses or anything. I ain’t crazy.
BOOK: Makes sense. Looking to feel alive, I venture.
JAYNE: For psychology, that ain’t half dumb, preacher. I expect I’m invested in making good sport of it whilst I can.
Then an Alliance cop – a corrupt one, as it would turn out – started firing on the ship and demanded that Mal release the body to him. Everyone was mighty curious to know why, and Mal – suspicious that Tracey’s body was being used to mule stolen goods -- ordered Simon to perform an autopsy. Just as the doctor began cutting, Tracey woke up. He's aliiiiiive!
NEXT: A Prince reference. Don't worry: It's not "Darling Nikki."